East End sustenance

While athletes warm-up in London, a nostalgic Keith Austin revisits the Olympic city's tiled eateries serving pie and mash.

In New York City it's a bagel or a hot dog from a street vendor; in Paris, it's a croissant or a pain au chocolat. In the sophisticated reaches of east London, the home of the Games of the 30th Olympiad, it's pie and mash.

No visit to the home of Jack the Ripper, rhyming slang and the cockney would be complete without sampling the traditional food of this working-class area.

It's not easy, though. Pie and mash shops aren't found on every street corner, but they are well worth seeking out for a taste of the true East End. As the author of the blog Spitalfields Life (spitalfieldslife.com) wrote last year, they are "inextricably bound up with the cultural and historical identity of this place - becoming destinations where people enjoy pilgrimages to seek sustenance for body and soul, by paying homage to the spirit of the old East End incarnated in these tiled, steamy temples".

Pie and mash shops evolved from the eel-pie houses of the 18th and 19th centuries, with the meat filling taking over in the 20th century. The meal today is quite simply a minced meat pie accompanied by mashed potato and a thick green parsley liquor. To this you add your own salt, white pepper and vinegar. Some shops still serve eels - stewed and jellied - but they are few and far between.

Pie and mash, done properly, is quite delicious and good value for money. Then again, perhaps I'm biased; I grew up here, and eating pie and mash was as usual as breathing. My first, and only, Saturday job was working in the shop at 414 Bethnal Green Road. I worked here from the age of 13 and, on leaving school at 18, worked here full-time for a further two years. When I go back, it's one of my first ports of call: "Hello mum, fancy pie and mash?"

Unlike fast-food chain outlets, no two shops are the same: the mash will be lumpier or smoother in one than another, the liquor lighter or thinner, the pastry flakier, the meat spicier. Often preferences are laid down almost at birth.

But while the food itself might change slightly, the etiquette remains the same. Queue at a long high counter, usually marble-topped, place your order (one pie two mash, two pies two mash etc) and wait while it is quickly plated from huge stainless-steel tureens by apron-clad women (I have yet to be served pie and mash by a man). The pies are usually brought from the kitchens on large metal trays.

Then get your own cutlery - spoon and fork, no knives - and take everything to one of the communal tables to eat. From here it's on for young and old. How much salt, pepper and vinegar you apply is up to you. Some people like to turn their pies upside down in the liquor; others peel the pie top back and shove the mash inside with the meat. Apart from not eating it with your hands, the world - as Minder's Arthur Daley famously said - is your lobster.

According to the book Pie 'n' Mash: A Guide to Londoners' Traditional Eating Houses (1995), the pie shop came about when one of London's 600 or so peripatetic pie men, who walked the streets selling meat, fruit, fish or eel pies from trays hung around their neck, decided to set up shop. There's more information about this at eelhouse.co.uk, which explains how the opening of the first eel and pie shop about 1850 would trigger the demise of the street pie men.

"These shops," it reveals, "would have stalls outside, selling live eels for families to take home and cook. Inside was kitted out with marble floors and tables together with pictures and mirrors, which hung on the [white tiled] walls, the floors would be covered with sawdust, to gather up the eel bones that were spat out."

Pie and mash shops are much the same today, with the exception of the sawdust, the live eel stalls and the spitting business, which have all disappeared. (Though one of my jobs in 1971 was to clean the blood off the live eel stall on Fridays and Saturdays after we finished for the day. It was something else to pour a bucket of squirming eel guts into a plastic bag at the end of a hard day's work. I loved it.)

Pie and mash shops probably reached their zenith during and after World War II, supplying cheap and nutritional food during rationing. There were perhaps 130 shops during and after the war and about 30 or so are left today.

After 200 or more years, the pie shop is in decline, dying out as tastes and the population change. So get stuck in. A beautiful example of the breed, at 41 Kingsland High Street, Dalston, is heritage-listed now and retains all the usual white tiles, bevelled mirrors and marble tables of the traditional pie shop. However, it's now a dim sum restaurant named Shanghai.

Here, then, are the remaining outposts of this declining empire closest to the Olympics. Roman and Bethnal Green roads are about the two closest destinations to the Olympics site; G. Kelly, at 526 Roman Road, is just a 15-minute walk away. When you're lined up at Kelly's at 414 Bethnal Green Road, tell them hello from me.


Eating there

  • G. Kelly at 414 Bethnal Green Road, Bethnal Green, E2; and 526 Roman Road, Bow, E3.
  • F. Cooke, 9 Broadway Market, Hackney, E8 (this one still sell eels); and 150 Hoxton Street, Hoxton, N1.
  • BJ's Pie House, 330 Barking Road, East Ham, E13.
  • Duncan's Pie, Mash & Eels, 365 Green Street, Upton Park, E13.
  • S & R Kelly, 284 Bethnal Green Road, Bethnal Green, E2.
  • Manze's, 76 High Street, Walthamstow, E17.
  • Maureen's, 6 Market Way, Chrisp Street Market, Poplar, E14.
  • McDowell Pie Shop, 30 High Street, Romford.
  • Nathan's, 51 Barking Road, Upton Park, E6.
  • The Noted Eel and Pie shops at 481a Leytonstone High Road, Leytonstone, E11; and 55 Wood Street, Walthamstow, E17.
  • Robins at 14 High Street, Wanstead, E11; and 150 Roman Road, Bethnal Green, E2.
  • Traditional East End Pie Shop, 538a Barking Road, Plaistow, E13.
  • Pie & Mash Shop, 171 East India Dock Road, Poplar, E14.

More information See pie-and-mash.com for a full list